I love music, I always have. I vividly remember sitting in the back seat of my mother’s car, running errands when I was very young, singing along to the soft rock hits of the 1970s and ‘80s. At four years old, I was a rock star. In this respect, I might say not much has changed in the last thirty-odd years, and in some ways that’s true—the only differences are that I’m generally the one driving now and I have a wider selection playing from my iPod. However, I’ve dreamed a few dreams in these years, and the journey toward eventual destination has been fun.
People measure developmental milestones in many ways, but I measure mine in music. My musical milestones began with nursery rhymes and songs in church, but I quickly graduated to popular songs for the University of Georgia, usually played on college football Saturdays when I made my first foray into dancing. Imagine a tiny tot walking in circles around a table to the tune of “Bulldog Bite (Hunker Down Hairy Dawgs)” and “Let The Big Dog Eat.” I took sporadic ballet lessons but never committed to sustained dance rules mainly because I’ve rarely been one to join teams or clubs or work well within structure; I was far more inclined to let my imagination rule my activity. Eventually, this translated to countless hours spent poorly but passionately choreographing my own dances to my favorite songs for the sheer joy of it rather than accomplishing a goal or rising to a standard. Soon I received my first album of popular music, Whitney Houston’s first record, which I played on our turntable over and over again, dancing away (no longer in circles around my grandmother’s coffee table).
These first few years of my life’s musical milestones were relatively innocuous, but growing up in the 1980s presented what I believe was a rare opportunity for a lifetime of appreciating music. At that time, few movie channels existed on television, and those that did exist played many of the same movies often. “Dirty Dancing” and “La Bamba” both came out in 1987, but given my young age, I didn’t see them until they appeared on HBO more than a year later. Christmas came and my older cousin, Jennifer, was visiting with her family for the holidays. She watched “Dirty Dancing” every time she could on the TV in my grandmother’s mother-in-law suite. Seven years her junior, I was only allowed to watch the final dance scene because I’d heard “The Time Of My Life” on the radio and loved it. On New Year’s Eve, Jennifer babysat my younger cousins and me while the adults went out to celebrate. Our younger brothers played upstairs and she planned to watch “Dirty Dancing” again. I told her I wanted to watch but wasn’t allowed. She then let me in on an important secret of childhood that I hadn’t yet discovered because I was the oldest, as well as seemingly hard-wired to avoid disapproval at all costs (later becoming quite a difficult feat to accomplish, but I digress): no one would know I watched this movie if I watched while they were gone and didn’t tell them. So I watched. I didn’t understand much of it, but I loved the music, soon got the soundtrack, and proceeded to dance, not so dirtily, to the songs in my room quite regularly. Then I saw “La Bamba” and it became official; I had discovered the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. (I also discovered inequality and social injustice, somewhat subliminally.) I thought I’d purchased the soundtrack to “La Bamba” one day when my grandparents had taken me to the store, but instead I’d come upon a treasure trove of hidden gems on cassette titled “La Bamba.” In fact, it included songs like “Tears On My Pillow” and “Little Darlin’.”
Time and Life magazines also got on board packaging what were now deemed “oldies” tunes; they sold collections of bigger artists from the 1950s and ‘60s like The Four Tops, The Beach Boys, and The Supremes, as well as collections from individual years. My father bought as many as he could and we listened to them on road trips. I memorized them all. Oldies stations sprang up on FM radio, TV shows and other movies integrated older music.
Then, on vacation in 1992, my folks played the soundtrack to “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and I found a new genre at a time of burgeoning popularity, thanks in large part to Garth Brooks. On this same vacation, my mother took my brothers, my best friend Katie, and me to the movies to see “Sister Act,” which delighted this then-Catholic music lover. Although I eschewed rules, I longed to perform. Katie possesses great musical talent and has since become a music educator and performer, so beginning with “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Sister Act,” I pleaded with her to teach me to sing and play music. Ultimately fruitless, Katie suffered patiently as I tried and tried to sing in tune, to read music, to play a keyboard with only one fully functioning hand—delusions of grandeur on my part, remarkable friendship on hers. Even when I sang with her in school plays, she didn’t make fun of me, and no one else did either—at least not within earshot. Even when I recorded my voice singing “Under The Boardwalk” at a little makeshift studio at Universal Studios in Florida (for delusional types like myself who talk their parents into spending a few bucks to fulfill their 12-year-old’s dream) on that same 1992 vacation. Even when Katie and I sang songs on the karaoke machine I was given to indulge my childhood fun (I fancied myself Patsy Cline and Katie Loretta Lynn—yep). It wasn’t until 1996 when I recorded Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” at another makeshift recording studio in Nashville that I finally realized I wasn’t going to improve. (Thank God American Idol wouldn’t come along for another six years.)
My dreams of performing now dissipated, I briefly considered another childhood dream: becoming a radio DJ. Is there a better way to spend time than playing music and getting paid for it? In my first year of college, I researched careers and found that people rarely become DJs, and even when they do, they’re not paid well. I also realized that they don’t choose the music for the most part. Finally, I landed on a major that fulfilled a sense of urgency to work for social justice and figured my dreams of sharing music with people would be subsequently relegated to friends.
Enter 2011. I began team teaching with my mentor and friend, Ardith, in order to strengthen my skills after a difficult first semester of teaching. While lecturing one day, I used a couple of examples from and of music to illustrate my points. After class, Ardith encouraged me to emphasize my interest in music to engage students. At the time, I appreciated her motivation but didn’t know how to integrate music in a more meaningful way.
Then, I happened upon a website being created to use music to discuss sociology (sadly, now gone). Because the class I teach most often includes significant sociological theories and concepts, I jumped on board. It took a couple of semesters to get the hang of using various songs to discuss course material, but the process has been enlightening and a lot of fun. I worried this semester that students hadn’t enjoyed these exercises, but the feedback I received proved otherwise—they found those to be their favorite and most helpful learning opportunities. (To put what it looked like the night we did the majority of our music work in terms of ‘80s family sitcoms, I want to be like Uncle Jesse from “Full House” getting his young nieces into Elvis and The Beach Boys, but seeing the faces of exhausted students on Thursday night at 6:30pm, I felt more like Jason Seaver from “Growing Pains” playing Gary Puckett and The Union Gap songs for his annoyed and embarrassed kids.)
So, I didn’t become a singer or a radio DJ, but I get to do something even better; I get to talk about what music means in the social world, what the lyrics mean and how they show that what students study in classrooms and online means something in larger society, that music and social justice are linked. So this post is dedicated to the people mentioned above: my parents, Jennifer, Katie, and Ardith for exposing me to and encouraging my love of music along these milestones, and a further special thanks to Ardith for giving me the push to unearth and transform a dream.